Categories
Creativity

Learning curves: on being bad at things

It’s been interesting to see the ways in which musicians and other artists have been coping with the present situation – one which is, as we are constantly reminded, unprecedented. I know several who launched energetically into diversification almost as soon as the first lockdown was pronounced, pivoting as much of their activity as they could to the internet and going all-in online.

Others have battened down the hatches, keeping a low profile until it all blows over. This better suits those of us with a less entrepreneurial mindset, but it’s a strategy that takes a hit every time another lockdown is announced. I took something of a middle path, educating myself just enough in things audio and visual to be able to keep some form of online engagement just about ticking over.

Right now, this is pretty much all I’m doing: hosting online musical meet-ups with choirs in the evenings, and spending the rest of the time score-learning, battling ennui, and very cautiously planning the 21-22 season. (this latter must be done in whispers – if it hears us it might decide to go the way of the current season…)

However, I’ve also taken up something completely different: drawing. Full disclosure: I am very bad at drawing. Or, at least, I have always thought of myself as very bad at drawing, having displayed no aptitude for it at school – my primary-school cartoon strip, ‘Gauss, the Famous Mathematician’, being notable for its eccentricity rather than for any artistic merit.

After a couple of weeks drawing for half an hour a day, I am pleased to report that I am still quite bad, but joyously, entertainingly and divertingly so. It is a great pleasure being bad at drawing, especially because there is so much room to get better. When I do manage to produce something that actually possesses realistic proportions, or bears a passable similarity to its intended subject, this is an occasion for great rejoicing.

Learning curves

A few reflections arise from this (or would, but I haven’t learned how to do them yet). For one, the feeling reminds me a little of when I took up the organ. Doing so as an adult, post-university, made me something of an exception when compared to my colleagues in church music, who are almost all fantastic prodigies with sparks flying from their fingers and well-earned postnominals coming out of their ears.

What was so enjoyable about it was the almost physical sensation of my brain developing new pathways as I practised. It was as if I could feel the neurons intrepidly mining new channels, whilst I laboured to separate the fingers of my left hand on the keyboard from my feet on the pedals. I was experiencing that exhilarating first rush of the learning curve.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Alanf777_Lcd_fig05.png

Because it had been so long since I’d tried to learn a new instrument, I had forgotten the feeling of making such rapid progress. I’d also forgotten the concomitant feeling of approaching the plateau and the enthusiasm fading away…

Being bad is good

The second reflection is that, at a time when it seems difficult to make material progress on my primary activity, it’s nice to have something that really doesn’t matter. My drawing has no purpose, no end goal, it doesn’t have to accomplish anything, it doesn’t even have to be good. It has no bearing on my livelihood, and indeed, unlike my livelihood, there is nothing currently stopping me doing it.

This chimes with one of YCAT’s recent blogs, by Kate Blackstone:

…find something to be bad at and get better at it. One of the reasons that music practice at a higher level is so difficult is that as you get better, it takes more and more work to make tiny amounts of progress. However, to feel good about themselves, humans have to feel like they’re good at stuff. In psychology we call this ‘competency beliefs’; you can reinforce and support your own competency beliefs by getting better at things, and reminding yourself that it is possible to get better at things.

I would say that in my particular case, even the ‘getting better at things’ part of it isn’t bothering me much – I am enjoying the focus that the activity of drawing is bringing me. But it is prompting a third reflection:

Growth mindsets

If you had suggested I take up drawing even a couple of years ago, I probably would have scoffed at you and pronounced, quite definitively, that I was terrible at drawing and had no natural ability at it, and that would be the end of that. An artistic avenue, closed off forever. But at least I wouldn’t have to worry that if I tried, I would be bad at it – I would simply never try, and therefore save the face of my fragile ego.

I wouldn’t say that my fixed mindset on that has disappeared – it’s still strong. But I’ve learned a lot about mindset since I finally read Carol Dweck’s book (never mind the fact that it had been recommended to me for months or perhaps years beforehand – what if it had contained difficult truths? Better to avoid…). The growth mindset believes that skills can be learned. Indeed, the lower the initial level of skill, the more opportunity for learning.

It’s interesting that if people say to me, ‘oh, I can’t sing’, I have tended to respond that everyone can sing. Why don’t/didn’t I have the same reaction to drawing? We absorb an idea of talent vs hard work early on. My school was a good school, I think, but I don’t remember anyone in an art class ever actually teaching me how to draw – it was just sort of expected. Soon it became apparent to me that there were some people who could just do it, and others who couldn’t, and that I was in the latter camp, Gauss notwithstanding. (The reverse also applied in academics – I seemed to be naturally good without doing very much, at least for a few years – the eventual realisation that I might have to start actually doing some work was deeply uncomfortable and much delayed…)

It’s an impression that stayed with me for a long time, until I realised that a good test of the growth mindset would be whether I could in fact learn to get a bit better at drawing, if I actually worked at it, and had the right teacher. The right teacher, by the way, seems to be the wonderfully enthusiastic Paul Priestly on YouTube. I would encourage anyone who thinks they can’t draw to spend a bit of time with his videos in order to be swiftly disabused of the notion. He’s the art teacher you always wished for – patient, permissive, bubbling with energy.


It’s interesting how hard it has been to quieten that part of the brain that thinks everything has to lead to something. Occasionally, as I admire a finished drawing, I catch this part muttering: ‘we could get really good at this and then sell them and then it wouldn’t matter if there’s a pandemic and you would be a proper artist’; and all sorts of other strange, ego-flattering pretensions.

Not everything has to lead to something. I didn’t really make any New Year’s resolutions this year – it felt like I could do with a break – but in my mind somewhere is the idea of ‘setting systems, not goals’. Goals can arise out of a good set of well-balanced systems – but they don’t have to. So I’m trying to silence the goal-brain, and just let the rest of me enjoy being quite bad at something quite fun.

Categories
Conducting Creativity Music

Mantras

Lean back when you want something.

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the idea of lucid dreams. In a lucid dream, you are aware that you are dreaming; you acknowledge the unreality of your situation, but you are at peace with it, and can even exert a certain degree of control.

Most of us have had this experience once or twice. I spent quite a lot of time reading about the phenomenon, and trying various techniques to induce this state of lucidity. I enjoyed moderate success, inducing a few such dreams over a couple of months, during which I had immersed myself in the lucid dreaming world (then confined to a few self-help volumes and some old-school internet fora). In fact, the only reason I stopped is that I was becoming too tired, from waking up constantly after vivid dreams.

What unlocked the latent ability to induce waking dreams during that time was the use of simple mantras, along with conditioning certain repeated patterns of behaviour.

For example, one book encouraged the prospective oneironaut to get into the habit of poking the finger of one hand into the palm of the other, as if testing its consistency. One did this at various times during the day, with the goal being that the subconscious mind would do it too, in a dream, prompting one to become aware of the dream-state. The first time it worked for me, my hand remained perfectly solid, but I found one of the fingers had tied itself into a knot – a giveaway that I was not in fact awake, but dreaming.

The mantra worked more simply: repeating the phrase ‘I will remember my dreams. I will become aware that I am dreaming’ or a variation on it, over and over, before going to sleep.


I recently had an opportunity to reflect on the efficacy of mantras and habitual physical behaviours. I had gone to conduct a rehearsal – my first after several weeks of lockdown-enforced inactivity – buzzing with enthusiasm. I thought of the choir, what it would sound like, the music, what I could do with it. I was excited.

In the event, my running of the rehearsal was mediocre, and my conducting execrable. It became apparent to me that I had ‘forgotten how to conduct’ in the previous few weeks.

Now, this is not to say it would have been noticeable to the singers, who were far too busy exercising dormant singing muscles, huddling against the chill, and straining their eyes to sight-read in the semi-gloom of the rehearsal space. But when you know, you know. My posture was all over the place; I spoke, too often and in rushed fragments, and practically fell over myself at some points. My gestures were wild, unpredictable, my habitual ellipse a deranged parallelogram. I was a mess.

I returned home despondent, questioning everything. How could I have forgotten everything so easily? Did it really only take a month off for all of my discipline to leave me?

Next time, on the train to the rehearsal, I decided to take a different tack. I remembered some words I had been told, and they stayed there, hanging in my mind for a few minutes: lean back when you want something. This is not the title of a self-help book – though it could have been – but a very good piece of advice from a very good conducting teacher. It was originally a corrective to a classic problem of mine, which I would describe as an inability to separate an inner musical impulse from an unhelpful exterior mannerism. It usually manifested in a strange forward motion accompanying something I wanted to happen – a stress, an accent, a particular effect.

I held it in my mind for a while, repeating it a few times, and felt my body relax from a tension I didn’t even know had been there. Later, in the rehearsal, I had regained the control of myself that I had lacked on the previous occasion. I felt the return of the elusive, tingly spidey-sense of heightened awareness that accompanies listening, really listening to what was around me.

Let’s return to my earlier description of a lucid dream: ‘you acknowledge the unreality of your situation, but you are at peace with it and can even exert a certain degree of control.’

The rehearsal room is the dream-state: an unreal experience in which a number of people stare at you and expect you to lead or guide them. The only difference is that in the real thing you are normally permitted to remain clothed. Sometimes it’s a nightmare, in which nothing goes right no matter how hard you try. Sometimes it merely has the uneasy feeling of uncontrol that comes with a meandering dream.

My brief use of a calming mantra generated a physical response, which triggered in the rehearsal. When I wanted something – ensemble, diminuendo, rubato, breath – I leaned back. The situation was still unreal, but I was at peace with it, and I had regained a little control – over myself at least.

Again, probably noone else in the room detected anything. That universal and seemingly unlikely truth – that nobody is really thinking about you as much as you think they are – holds just as true for the conductor as anyone else. I don’t imagine anyone else noticed the small adjustment. But when you know, you know.

If I were in the business of coining terminology – like Mark Gibson, whose conducting tome I explored earlier – I would probably be trying to make lucid conducting happen right now. Good physical habits and mantras triggering subconsciously, to calm the mind and render the bizarre world of the rehearsal or concert hall less alien and more manageable. An induced state of flow, the conductor’s Witcher-sense, deep listening as opposed to surface-level fire-fighting.

Lean back when you want something. Perhaps we can come up with some other good conducting mantras. Small hands, big listening. Or maybe simply Breathe.

Categories
Creativity Music Technology

Round-up: Pods, books, and music that helped make 2020 less, well, 2020

As 2020 staggers to its conclusion, everything feels a little apocalyptic. New mutant viral strains, hiding in plain sight, out to get us. Brexit, heralding a future in which we in the UK will either mightily prosper or fall into ignominy, with seemingly nothing in between.

It looks increasingly likely that, by March, most musicians will have spent a full year dealing with the disruption to our work. For me, the missed opportunities and connections not made have been the hardest, the inescapable feeling that I will simply have stagnated for a year, treading water.

And I’ve had it easy – I have been able to keep working in some form or another the whole time. Others have been less fortunate, through no fault of their own, and the concomitant loss of talent from the musical world is devastating.

However, as the year draws to an end, I am trying to look back at it through a more positive lens – to drag my thoughts out of the negative spiral, and rebalance the scales a little. I’ve decided to self-indulgently highlight things I’ve discovered this year that have brought something new, added value, or made me think differently about life, creativity, and art.

Podcasts

In the first couple of months of lockdown, I listened to fewer podcasts. They’re normally what I listen to while travelling to rehearsals or gigs, and since that wasn’t happening, they didn’t fit into the new lockdown routine.

However, later in the year, once I discovered the magical productivity-boosting combination of podcast+wireless headphones+housework, the podcast floodgates were open again.

Song Exploder

Having been a fan of Hrishikesh Hirway’s other podcast, The West Wing Weekly, I’m surprised it took me so long to check out Song Exploder, which has been around since 2014. In fact, I’m sufficiently late to the party that this is probably a meaningless recommendation.

For me, though, it’s been a really interesting insight into the process of modern pop creation, and what creativity looks like in the studio setting. It’s been a way to reconnect with music I’ve loved for a long time – Lindsay Buckingham talking about Go Your Own Way – as well as introducing me to artists I’d heard of but hadn’t really listened to – Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa.

I’m fascinated by the craft of modern pop production, and what elements go into a really good groove. The inclusion of track-by-track audio breakdowns allows you to zoom in on how it’s actually done – a goldmine of information.

Not Overthinking

https://notoverthinking.com/start/

Not a music recommendation, but I’ve got a lot of value this year from listening to the frank, introspective, occasionally combative conversations between YouTuber Ali Abdaal and his brother Taimur, who runs a tech startup. Indeed, an early episode persuaded me to restart this blog – ‘putting yourself out there’ – but the topics covered have ranged from ‘productivity’ (a word I can only use in scare-quotes now) to how to treat children morally.

There’s also some useful observations about creativity, and plenty of recommendations for thought-provoking articles and books. I don’t always agree, but I almost always find it interesting. And in those darker lockdown times, when I haven’t been able to myself, it’s felt like hanging out with friends.

Honourable mentions: Ear Hustle, Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review, The Crate and Crowbar

Music

Bill Evans

Last year, I would occasionally stick on Bill Evans as a relaxing soundtrack for work or reading. This year I actually started listening to the music, whilst trying to introduce myself to some of the fundamentals of jazz piano playing using Mark Levine’s The Jazz Piano Book.

Pretty early on, the book introduces the concept of left-hand chord voicings, which free up the right hand to play the melody, or solo. I find these absolutely magical, largely because they can suggest a chord often without even sounding the root – so for example a V7-I progression in C can be played without a G or a C. I vaguely knew this could be done, but how effective it is still blows my mind.

I’m a long way off learning all the voicings, but there’s a beautiful elegance to the way they manipulate the role of thirds and sevenths. Bill Evans is the master, and I’ve enjoyed applying my rudimentary knowledge to his playing this year.

Honourable mentions: BTS, Bohren & Der Club of Gore (my most recent paean to them here)

Books

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper

As lockdown kicked in, it seemed the right thing to do to immerse myself in the lives of people who had travelled widely and done interesting things. By far my favourite was this biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose writing I have hugely enjoyed for its almost cavalier richness of description and joie de vivre.

It helped alleviate my frustration at having so many weeks of travel plans hijacked this year, allowing me to spectate as the intrepid hero wanders a delightfully pre-lapsarian Europe, performs feats of derring-do in wartime Crete, and then writes thrilling prose about it all. It made it more bearable, somehow, to know that someone had taken full advantage of their freedoms. It makes me want to travel more mindfully, and joyfully, in future.

I followed up with Winston Churchill, and am currently engrossed in Rory Stewart’s Fermor-esque pilgrimage across early-noughties Afghanistan. I’ve seen Stewart described, in the context of the Tory leadership election, as ‘the only person in the room with a greater sense of his own world-historical destiny than Boris Johnson’, but be that as it may, his account of the perilous journey is honest, readable, and gripping. He also punctuates it with his own sketches, which is such a cool thing to be able to do that I think it might become a 2021 resolution to learn how to do it.

Honourable mentions: The Beat Stops Here by Mark Gibson (which I summarised here), Churchill by Roy Jenkins, Mindset by Carol Dweck, The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich

Games

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

In the long summer of lockdown, there wasn’t any work to do and there wasn’t anywhere to go. It was a chance for guilt-free indulgence in a pastime I generally have less time for these days.

I didn’t even know this remaster of the classic real-time strategy game existed until a friend with whom I used to play the old version mentioned it. I booted it up and it was like stepping into the past.

We had played the original 90s version of the game in old-school LAN parties in our houses. It was a surprise to discover that the game still has an active community, now joined by a growing e-sports division, with matches available on YouTube with professional commentary.

We certainly played a lot better than we did as kids, though I think an e-sports career is sadly out of reach. It certainly helped while away those lockdown hours in blissful nostalgia.

Honourable mentions: Monster Train, Into the Breach, Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

Misc

A category for other things that have added value to my life this year in various ways. This is all part of something I’m trying – an Annual Review – to reflect on the past and make better decisions about the future. (Sometimes you realise, much as you might disdain the label, that you might in fact be a ‘millennial’.)

  • Exercise. Turns out that once you hit 30, this starts to be a bit more of a requirement. I feel good when I force myself to do it, and not when I don’t. Go figure. The next challenge seems to be to actually work out what sort of exercise I need, and how much. (Lest the reader get the wrong idea, the goal here is not to get shredded, which would be hilarious, but simply not to devolve into mush in the face of all this inactivity)
  • AirPods. I always thought these were a bit silly, until I got sent them free with something else I had ordered. They make listening to music or podcasts around the house so easy, turning chores into a pleasure. They also make phone calls an infinitely more enjoyable experience – I hadn’t realised what a difference having your hands free makes. I am much more likely to call someone now than I used to be, which has to be a good thing.

I’m always after recommendations for good material, whether it’s reading, listening, watching, or playing, so do point me at them via Twitter or email. I hope everyone reading has a happy New Year and a successful 2021.

Categories
Music Technology

An A.I. attempts to rewrite Thomas Tallis

Jukebox is a type of neural net – an network of artificial nodes which is ‘trained’ on a series of data, and can then be taught to use this data to generate new strings. These artificial intelligence networks have been used to create unique images, poetry, scripts, and music. Essentially, they work from one data-point to the next and try to work out what letter, pixel, or note should come next, based on its training. I first encountered them on the wonderful AI Weirdness blog, which is a rabbit-hole of the hilarious and surreal things that can now be done with this technology.

What makes Jukebox different from many of the varieties of generative music that have come before is that it’s trained not on symbolic datasets – for example MIDI files which encode digital musical instructions into code – but actual audio. Not only that, but it has also been conditioned to recognise the shape of words, meaning it can – sort of – generate these sounds too.

This means that you can feed it an audio sample, give it a few parameters such as a genre or artist to emulate, specify the words, and then ask it to predict what should come next. It bases these choices on what it has learned about the 1.2 million real songs that formed its ‘training’ dataset.

The results, as one might expect, vary wildly in quality. On the aforementioned blog, Janelle Shane posts some creations which are exciting and not a little horrifying – for example, a pastiche Frank Sinatra Christmas song which should belong to an album entitled ‘Music from the Uncanny Valley’.

Most of the results that have so far been posted by researchers have the flavour of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’s ‘One Song to the Tune of Another’ (see here if you need a description of this very complicated game). Thus you can get the AI to do Queen in the style of Nirvana, for example.

Inevitably, a large majority of its training data is non-classical in nature, but I still thought it would be interesting to prompt it with some choral music, to see what it would come up with. The results are surprisingly impressive, though naturally very odd.


Jukebox was primed with about twelve seconds of a recording of the classic Thomas Tallis banger ‘If ye love me’, and given the full lyrics. Now, it has a limited dataset of genres and artists to use as a template, and the closest I could find were ‘Classical’ for the genre and, yes, ‘Mormon Tabernacle Choir’ for the artist. Already the mind boggles.

It had three goes at generating 40 more seconds of the piece, transforming the input through a process of ‘upsampling’ at three different levels. Let’s have a listen to what it came up with after some four hours of labour:

1. If ye love meh

The neural net takes over on the last syllable of ‘commandments’, and in each sample it has a different idea of what chord should follow. Here, it plays it safe and repeats the chord, which works. It’s cool that it makes the phrase lengths broadly ‘vocal’ in nature, and simulates breaths before them too, presumably learning to ape the opening of the prompt.

Some extraneous, non-vocal sounds start to appear in the middle, including at one point what sounds like a train passing, or perhaps a snare drum. I wonder if that’s due to it using the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with their often quite elaborate arrangements, as a model. For all it knows, the piece starts acappella and then goes on to become instrumental. It could also be misinterpreting the acoustical reverb as ‘new sounds’ in their own right, and trying to work out what they could mean.

It also mostly stays in key, until the very end, which normally unremarkable thing I point out as it is not a given in the other samples…

2. If ye…love…meeee….

This one’s ‘-ment’ chord is actually a cool choice – A minor rather than original F major. Afterwards, however, it goes off the rails a little earlier than the previous one. I like the little cymbal ‘ting’ after the second phrase. The choir’s vocal production becomes very slurred, and the AI forgets the key, if it ever knew what that was in the first place. The end becomes rather worrying and distorted, and the harmony is bizarre.

Presumably, because it isn’t given any information about what harmony actually is, it doesn’t know the rules except by what it’s heard before. It must base its moment-to-moment choices about what audio to generate on what previous bits of audio it knows are usually followed by. However, I can’t imagine there are very many examples in the dataset of an audio progression of the sort that happens at the end of this excerpt. How did Jukebox come up with it?

3. If ye love me, keep in the same key..?

Uh. Pretty out-there choice of a continuation chord on ‘commandments’, but it recovers pretty successfully and sticks the landing. The words also feel a little more present in this one, and it stays in a key and sort of in tune longer than the others, at least until a demonic final entry before the file mercifully ends. There’s some intriguing parallelism in the middle, during the extension of a word that I think might be ‘you’. And it remembers to be acappella throughout, which the other two didn’t manage. Probably the most successful.


What’s impressive is that, in all three of its goes, the AI learns that the phrases are preceded by breaths, and apes the length of the first phrase for most of the following ones, varying them subtly but plausibly. But the overall effect of the continuations (if one can ignore the ghostly distorting of the voices) is of someone dreaming a conclusion to a piece to which they only remember the opening. Like dreams, they lose coherence and stop making sense at various points. Still, given that the vast majority of its training is on popular music and other styles, it does a pretty creditable if slightly meandering job.

For me, the results of this are roughly equal parts disturbing, exciting, and hilarious. Disturbing, because the distorted voices end up sounding like something from a horror film. Exciting, because the computer isn’t bound by our conception of harmony or structure – it dreams up new combinations that we might never have thought of. Insomuch as it has worked out the rules, it’s done so by simply listening to a lot of music, like an alien tuning in from another planet and trying to understand how our music works.

As a tool for inspiring creativity, it has limitless potential, because it can always surprise us with its choices. It won’t be long before it gets better at understanding different genres and is able to produce highly competent pastiches – the musical equivalent of these non-existent people.

In the meantime it’s more likely to make me giggle than reflect on the mysteries of human existence. But it won’t be long. I, for one, welcome our new robotic musical overlords.

Categories
Conducting Leadership Music

Book Notes: The Beat Stops Here

It is a truism that conducting can’t be learned from a book. I don’t actually think there are any books out there that purport to be able to teach conducting in complete isolation from actual experience in front of a group of musicians. But I’ve often found books on conducting helpful in clarifying ideas, or untangling tricky concepts both theoretical and practical.

It’s probably also the case that with the relative paucity of conducting time during the pandemic, I’ve been turning to the books occasionally to keep certain concepts fresh in my mind, or to challenge my thinking on various ideas.

So, I’ve decided to make brief notes on a few conducting manuals, drawing out some key quotes, with the aim of distilling some of the insights that I’ve found helpful or interesting, and putting them in one place for ease of referral. And they’re going on this blog in case they’re helpful to anyone else.

It’s been interesting to reflect on the various books about conducting I’ve read over the years. Sometimes I find myself vigorously nodding as page after page illuminates my own experience in ways I hadn’t considered; other times my brow furrows at a concept or illustration that doesn’t make sense to me. There are as many different opinions about what makes good conducting, and good conductors, as there are conductors, musicians, and concert-goers.

I’m starting off with a book that very largely falls into the ‘vigorous nodding’ camp for me, and that’s The Beat Stops Here by Mark Gibson.


The Beat Stops Here: Lessons on and off the Podium for Today’s Conductor

2017, Oxford University Press

Mark Gibson

Director of Orchestral Studies at CCM, University of Cincinnati

Buy it at Amazon Waterstones

Overview

An experienced teacher and performer, Gibson shares insights honed from years of teaching in the University of Cincinnati’s conducting programme. The book is divided into two, with the first half consisting of intensive studies of particular overtures or movements and workshopping the challenges they present to the conductor. The second half is a more disparate collection of writings on other aspects of conducting, from teaching, to working in particular genres, score study, and more.

(My observations/comments in blue)

Preface

  • Many books begin with physical technique, but for Gibson, score study is more important, and that’s why the book begins with it instead
  • Gibson describes himself as ‘anti-beating’:

Conducting is as much about waving one’s arms as golf is, which is to say, not as much as people think. Both are highly disciplined kinetic activities whose physical manifestations – a beat, a swing – conceal an abundance of subtle movement, both with the body and the mind. (xi)

  • Focus on the beat as the principle idea of conducting is reductive and counter-productive. Hence, the beat stops here!

Foreword

The right equipment for the conducting student is, every day, a score, any score, a pencil, preferably with a good eraser, and a mind that is willing, curious, and relentless. (xiv)

The study of conducting is circuitous; there is no straight line to mastery or success (xiv)

  • Gibson really doesn’t like beating or the idea that conducting should begin with it – it’s the ‘original sin’ of conducting
  • Hard not to agree. I was once told that beating time is what conductors had to learn to do in response to music like the Rite of Spring, but that merely beating time is not the same as showing music. Gibson says it can become ‘the death of music-making’ and that ‘beats beget beats’
  • Words are insufficient to convey what is in music – that’s partly why Gibson tries to avoid the standard words, and looks to invent new terminology related to everyday gestures or images
  • Score study is of primary importance: the aim is ‘to know in the richest sense of the word, any given work the composer has written’

Only armed with that knowledge and understanding will we then be able to communicate what we know of that work to an ensemble and to an audience, employing our bodies from head to toe to speak a nonverbal language of gesture with style and taste. (xv)


Part 1: Repertoire Lessons

The first part of the book consists of bar-by-bar analyses of movements from various genres of classical music: Overture, Opera, Concert, Larger Symphonic Works, etc.

  • Opens with Gustav Meier (Gibson’s teacher) quotation:

There are only three things you have to do to be a conductor: Study scores, study scores, and study scores.

Gibson begins with a glossary of his teaching terminology, much of it an amusing or inventive take on a particular gesture or mannerism. I love them all and there is a wealth of useful insight. Here are some selected examples:

  • Advertising: ‘Many young conductors exaggerate the size of the upbeat; this we call “advertising”‘
  • Buddha face: ‘Images of the Buddha reveal a calm, knowing visage, engaged but not emotional, open and receptive but not active’. Conductors should emulate this, there’s no need for exaggerated facial motion
  • Helium hand – ‘an easy, slow, vertical, non-inflected rising of the left arm and hand in preparation for a signal’
  • ‘S/he who lives by the beat, dies by the beat’
  • Small hand – ‘the bigger the beat, the smaller the listening’
  • ‘Toss the pasta’ – ’round gestures promote connected playing and generate flow’
  • ‘Two adjectives’ – the conducting should communicate the spirit of the work as well as the other necessary information (how loud, soft, fast, or slow). ‘Think of adjectives that accurately describe the spirit of any given passage’

The repertoire studies which follow are brilliantly and sometimes minutely detailed. One needs the score to hand (easy enough with IMSLP) to get the most out of it. It takes the music blow-by-blow, bar-by-bar, explaining the context, highlighting passages which are tricky for the players, drawing analogies to contemporary works or others by the same conductor, and explaining what this means for the conductor.

You very much have the feeling of being with him in his studio as he takes you through his approach. He deals thoroughly with thorny problems – awkward starts, like the upbeat of Mendelssohn’s Die schone Melusine overture – and mixes in general observations clearly drawn from practical performing experience – in the theatre pit, always go strong to the violas!

It’s not for beginners by any stretch – it’s not entry-level stuff. Gibson’s hope expressed in the preface that the book may be of interest to non-musicians wishing to learn more of the conductor’s craft needs to be taken in the light of detailed passages of craft such as: ‘Use your left hand to go from 1st violins straight up to Donna Elvira for her entrance. Don’t shy away from the sfp in bar 4; it should cause a shiver up the spine, both hers and the listener’s, but make sure there is ample bow to sustain the chord its full length.’

It wouldn’t be very helpful for me to summarise this part of the book for ‘notes’ purposes as it’s so minute in detail, and tied to the particular scores. But focussing on these analyses one at a time is a masterclass in the sensitive appraisal of a score and one of the book’s most helpful features.


Part 2: Professional Lessons

Part 2 consists of of a number of articles, some adapted from blog posts, on a variety of subjects from peripheral conducting skills such as building a inner metronome, to management techniques for orchestras and choruses. Here are some things that stuck with me:

Beating

  • ‘Not the Eternal Tao: Conducting is ‘the intersection of gesture and pulse’ (175). The focus on giving a ‘clear beat’ is reductive and unhelpful – the orchestra will not simply play more together if you beat more vigorously

You may think the orchestra wants or needs a clear “beat”. Members of the orchestra may even tell you they want one[…]but in my experience, that is not what they mean and not really what they want (176)

  • The problem with the ‘beat’ as in a singular point of arrival is that, with the exception of percussion, sound in an orchestra or choir doesn’t work that way. A beat can indicate tempo but little else, and doesn’t even need to do that after the upbeat has established the tempo
  • Musicians can keep tempo by themselves, usually
  • If you find yourself over-beating (‘beats generate beats’), stop and try and plug into the group’s tempo, to feel the pulse as something organic that arises out of the group’s activity

Hands

  • Left hand should be independent and useful, not contradicting the right or giving the orchestra multiple ‘targets’ – preferably at a different height to avoid the appearance or temptation of mirroring
  • Mirroring is not uniformly bad, but can leave the right hand with no space to go to across the body
  • In cathedral music, with the choir on either side of the conductor, it can sometimes be an important tool, if it used as such, ie with intent. If done all the time though, it decreases the variety of tone available to you
  • The left hand is a crutch, something to do, but it should have intent. If it’s not doing anything, put it away
  • Vigorous nodding once more (even, perhaps especially, in the knowledge that I use it without intent far too often. I was once taught that the left hand does one of three things: 1) nothing (in which case it is placed by the waist), 2) information, 3) mirrors the right )

Make Your Own Metronome

This is a fun way of learning to internalise tempo:

  • Learn a piece with a clearly defined metronome mark, such as a Beethoven scherzo, such that it can be recalled at will and its tempo marking applied. Do this for all the metronome markings
    • Here it is pleasing to observe Gibson joining me on the smallest hill on which I will die, which is non-existent metronome markings, such as those giving crotchet = 41, or 65, or 113. ‘those numbers don’t exist on a metronome’, says Gibson, adding with tongue in cheek, ‘no real composer uses them’
    • Note to self: a metronome goes up, from 60, in 3s, then from 72 in 4s, then from 120 in 6s, and from 144 in 8s)
  • It has the tempos you need, but the given tempo might not be the right one in a particular circumstance – they’re an important starting point but not a finishing point

Storytelling

  • Trouble shaping a melody? Why not invent some words in the right character? Uses example of giving a Dvorak melody folk-esque words. Generates a narrative and helps you find musical shapes

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes

  • Deals with the physicality of conducting – this is much more than just arms and gesture
  • Disassociate the bobbing of the head with an accent in the music – young conductors do this a lot
  • (I certainly did and continue to if unpoliced)
  • The face: be like the calm bus-driver ‘who knows where s/he is going, and gets you there without fuss or drama.’ Try not to exaggerate facial expressions (to which I would add Zoom is a painful reminder that we do this a lot in an attempt to please)
  • Gibson advocates ‘Buddha face’: ‘the serene visage of a generous, knowing presence’. Open, aware, listening, but not dominating or being needy (angle of chin also has a bearing on this latter)
  • Sniffing as an upbeat is a ‘disagreeable habit’ and distracting to audience and orchestra alike – for one thing, the wind and brass players, not to mention singers, for whom you are a model, mostly breathe through the mouth. Don’t open the mouth too far though as it looks silly
  • For Gibson, the arm is the breath (this is good – I often feel like I breathe too much and find myself hyperventilating)
  • Mouthing along to chorus (particular pertinent to choir directors of course and a much discussed issue). Like mirroring, it is not as simple as saying ‘never’ or ‘always’. It can help reinforce a particular onset or bring ‘bite’ to a certain word or phrase, but done to excess it inhibits the listening of the conductor to what they are actually doing, much like an exaggerated beat does
  • It also annoys the choir, who might feel consciously or otherwise that they are not being trusted to read words
  • Generally ‘the more we do physically, the less we listen’ (197)
  • Keep lips relaxed
  • Stand up straight and try not to bend over – must be balanced with a proper centre of gravity
  • Knee bends! A difficult habit to break
  • I find they’re especially bad in propulsive baroque music where the knees just really want to get involved
  • The entire act, from backstage from the dressing room to the podium should be practised and rehearsed – this avoids nervous habits, extraneous movement, or a loss of control. The behaviour and demeanour of the conductor is being assessed before they even take the podium
  • If you have to look at the score to turn the page, you don’t know it well enough. Consider also when to turn the page – it might not be where the publisher has put a page turn
  • Don’t turn the music stand around – if the music’s at a 90-degree angle to the floor you’re going to have to lean over to see it – orchestras distrust this
  • Interesting. I’ve seen lots of people do this in masterclasses and always wondered why they did as I would always panic that the score was going to fall off

Discipline your body, your posture, and your head, and your conducting will grow in confidence, simplicity, and effect (199)

👏👏👏

Score reading

Annuziata Tomaro contributes a guest article with some tough truths about score-reading

  • You should read clefs as what they are, rather than transposing them in your mind to a clef with which you are more familiar
  • Alto clef a classic example, the middle line is C, not ‘a B in treble clef and therefore transpose up one to get C’

Quantifiable

  • Bill Buford: ‘one does and does and does until one eventually knows more than others and learns the craft’ (214)
  • If you want a conducting career: helps if you don’t want worldly possessions. Pack light. Be thick-skinned
  • Nothing sexy about the mastery of the craft, and no guarantees of success. ‘People win competitions and positions; I know neither how or why’
  • So much is hard to measure – you can test specific things but there are many that elude measurement
  • ‘When all else is in place, art shows up’

Three-Part Conducting Rules for All Occasions

1. if the orchestra doesn’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.

2. if you don’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.

3. if you really know the score, it still doesn’t matter where you put your hands. (233)

He knows when to pose questions rather than offer simple solutions: for example on the vexed question of whether, how, and why an orchestra should ‘watch’ the conductor.

Choruses

Of course I’m also interested in what he has to say about working with singers and choruses, and there are a couple of articles on that here too. Gibson learned his chorus chops in the opera house. It’s always worth hearing the orchestral conductor’s perspective on choirs

…amateur and student choruses are working with you out of love; they love the music and/or they love the social dynamic of singing in a chorus. Very different from the orchestral situation[…]if you ignore them from the podium, you let them down (241)

  • Whereas he permits the orchestra to look at their music and spare you the odd glance if you’re very lucky, he notes that choruses need to be out of their copies in order to communicate emotion, and for their voices to speak out into the building, and so that they have a feeling of communication.
  • He goes into the chorus rehearsal with the music memorised, and makes the bargain: I won’t look down if you won’t.
  • I like this, even if it feels like a tough challenge when the musical workload goes up
  • Lauds Romano Gandolfi, with whom he worked, who conducted with very small gestures and insisted on the chorus’s maximum attention
  • Returns to the issue of ‘don’t mouth the words’ with the further observation – why do we do it? Do we think we are helping, and if so, why? ‘Never once have I had a chorus member ask me to mouth the words’ (242)
  • When working with chorus, know when to ‘press the button’. Late in the rehearsal process, something isn’t working and the ensemble has lost focus – it can sometimes be permitted to ‘press the button’, stop proceedings and gently but firmly remind the chorus of what we had rehearsed and thank them for their attention. Stresses this should only be used with amateur choruses and then at most once
  • Be encouraging and have high energy at all times. Choral rehearsals are ‘exhausting and exhilarating’

‘know before whom you are standing’ (Hebrew proverb)

There are also some useful comments on careers and people skills towards the end:

Only after a while, and often too late, do you, as the recently engaged music director, realise that no only were you putting on a show for the orchestra during the audition process, the orchestra and its various entities were putting on a show for you. Both parties were selling, and now both must deal with the reality of living together. (250)

This rings true and brings to mind the observation that in an audition, both parties should evaluate each other for fit, not just one way around!


Key insights

Who lives by the beat, dies by the beat. Try to avoid making it the focus of your craft, instead think about the interaction of gesture and pulse.

Generate a vocabulary of gesture with imagery and metaphor to provide the widest range of physical responses to music.

Score study is vital and neglected at your peril.

Who’s the book for?

Conducting students and those looking for fresh perspectives on their craft. Anyone interested in the analysis of music from a performer’s perspective.


I hope you’ve found this summary helpful. If you’d like to buy the book, you can use the links at the top of the post. I intend to give one or two other books the same treatment, so watch this space if you’re interested. Thanks for reading!

Categories
Choirs Music

I’m dreaming of a white…carol-book

Going from being the centre of attention on the podium, everyone’s breath waiting on your slightest movement, to once more being just another small box in the corner of someone’s screen, is bruising for the usually well-nourished conducting ego. After a precious couple of months back in action this Autumn, November’s supplementary lockdown heralded a return to the awkward arranged marriage of choral rehearsal and video-conferencing software. In leading online sessions for the non-professional choirs I work with, I have been forced into a much deeper relationship with my trusty white volume of carols than I had hitherto considered possible.

In normal circumstances, I try to avoid working on carols more than a couple of weeks before Advent. I know only too well, from my time as a singer, the loss of Christmassy magic that can accompany one’s thirtieth rendition of ‘O come all ye faithful’ during the season (perhaps especially as an alto droning away somewhere in the vicinity of middle C). However, with the short lead time involved, and with music hire companies in much more limited operation, we have been forced to turn to music which everyone would have to hand, and this has meant returning once again to the august OUP collection 100 Carols for Choirs.

We’ve now spent a few weeks mining deep in the rich seams of its (mostly) accessible and festive carol arrangements, taking two or three at a time and merrily bashing our way through them on Zoom. It’s caused me to take a closer look at a volume of which I had thought I had intimate knowledge. One happy by-product has been the discovery of some interesting things I had previously passed over – but it’s also true that its very popularity has led to a certain homogenising of the choral music of Christmas.


In a dim corner of my mind, I remember an undergraduate lecture on Javanese gamelan, where we learned that the once-multifarious regional styles of gamelan music rapidly homogenised in response to the availability of recordings of prestigious ensembles. The dissemination of the recordings led to imitation of the most admired ensembles, so that the peculiar regional differences were gradually ironed out.

It’s not a huge leap to say that a volume with the reach of Carols for Choirs has done the same. Take those Willcocks descants, for example. They are pretty uniformly excellent, tastefully yet dramatically reharmonising the tunes and providing a satisfying conclusion to the congregational carols. However, most are now so universally well-known and well-beloved that their inclusion has become de rigeur. The choirmaster who attempts to introduce different descants is greeted with a chorus of moans from choristers for whom a chord of B half-diminished is the authentic sound of their childhood Christmas. (This is despite the best efforts of OUP, who included a number of new descants in 2011’s Carols for Choirs 5.)

It’s also true that the CFC series has heaped another mound of earth on the idea of carols as belong to any season other than Christmas, despite the token inclusion in 100 CFC of one or two Easter carols. The once-popular Easter Carol Service is now more likely a service of Easter readings and anthems, depriving the Easter season of the fertile interplay between secular and sacred that manifests in carol services during Advent and Christmas.

Contemporary carol composition has also had a hand in taking the genre further from its dance-music roots. We’re rather more likely to hear a delicately-harmonised andante such as Rutter’s Cradle Song than something rambunctious in the model of Willcocks’ Angelus ad virginem or Sussex Carol. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s nice to have both presented side-by-side, giving us options for balance – especially as we’re just as likely these days to use the volume as the anchor of a festive concert programme as the backbone of a church carol service.


Internet choral celebrity Patrick Allies recently took to Twitter to lampoon the way 100 Carols is generally used. It’s a book of two halves; half the ones that everyone does every year, and the half of pieces that still languish in obscurity. Part of this is probably the gamelan effect of choirs such as that of King’s College, Cambridge, broadcasting the ‘authoritative’ carol interpretations and arrangements annually on Christmas Eve.

Knowing that I might otherwise drive myself mad spending two months on carols, I’ve been using the opportunity to take a couple of choirs on excursions around the corners of the volume I knew less well. Willcocks and Rutter took full advantage of editor’s privilege, with the result that just under half of the pieces in 100 CFC are composed or arranged by Willcocks, and a further quarter by Rutter, the unquestioned King of Christmas. There are some real gems: Willcocks tends to arrange traditional carols from various countries, while Rutter prefers to employ the Christmassy Word Randomiser(TM), generating heart-warming texts by assembling ‘stable’, ‘babe’, ‘light’ etc in various combinations. The editors’ achievement is in compiling a very complete and useful volume by casting a wide net, and, where they’ve needed to fill a gap, writing it themselves, in the great Kantor tradition.

There are a few I haven’t yet dared to tackle, even over the sound-proof medium of Zoom (on Zoom, noone can hear you scream). Among them is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ave plena gracia, placed alphabetically very near the start of the volume and a somewhat daunting sight even for the hardened chorister. I’ve never once heard of it being performed or recorded, and it appears neither on Spotify or YouTube. Go on – I dare you to include it Nine Lessons next year. And while you’re at it, write your own descant – a little bit of regional diversity isn’t such a bad thing, and we wouldn’t want to all sound the same, would we?

Categories
Creativity

Will ‘design thinking’ save classical music?

I recently happened on an online webinar series hosted by the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), entitled ‘Introduction to Design Thinking for Musicians‘. Now, this is sort of thing is perfect clickbait for me. ‘Design Thinking’ sounds like a cool piece of Silicon Valley tech-speak – and we can use it as musicians? Sign me up!

Like most of these cool-sounding strategies, though, there’s some pretty nebulous stuff hiding under the hood, which we’ll have to unpack before we get to whether this is actually going to revolutionise the concert experience as we know it.

What is ‘design thinking’?

Design Thinking has a few definitions, but from what I can see it’s mostly about developing products by reverse engineering the problem a consumer has, and solving it. But hang on – why use normal words when we could do this?:

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems.

A ‘solution-based approach to solving problems’ sounds a little like the winner of an early 00’s Tautology of the Year competition. The more useful part of that paragraph is to do with the word ‘iterative’. You try something out, make small adjustments in response to feedback, and put out a new version, with a tight loop that should quickly generate improvements to the product.

Apple is a classic example of a company that’s renowned for this way of designing. They think their way into the consumer’s head, and solve their problem before they know they have one. The process is supposed to force you out of ingrained patterns of thought about how to frame problems and provide solutions.

There’s one more concept we need to introduce here, before we dig into the applications of this strategy to music, and that’s User Experience, or UX – the way the customer actually interacts with your product. In most use-cases, you want this to be fuss-free, accessible, and efficient. As an early social-media engineer now puts it, ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.’ UX design helps funnel people towards where you want them to be, or what you want them to do (or click).

Can we leverage this to improve the experience of music to audiences?

Come on, less talk, more saving classical music

OK, we’re getting there. A couple of people have begun to make the leap from UX to AX: ‘Audience Experience’. Essentially, centre the experience of the audience and design a concert around their needs. Zachary Manzi, an orchestral performer himself, has written on this extensively for Medium. The pitch is a good one:

…the traditional concert experience is just one kind of experience. We can design new ones to elevate music in ways that speak to new people.

So far so good, and even if you feel the ‘traditional concert experience’ gets a lot of unfair flak these days, it’s no great leap to suggest it doesn’t appeal to everybody. Manzi’s solution is to apply design thinking to the concert experience:

What does this really look like in music? If we are a piano trio and creating an experience for 20-somethings poets, then we must understand who these people are, what they enjoy, what they hate, what they do on the weekends, where they like to hang out, how they talk, and what else they would be doing if they weren’t at a concert. Then we build a tailored experience that invites them to pave a path through the music in a way that is intrinsically valuable to them.

Let’s set aside for now the issue of whether creating a better Audience Experience necessarily results in creating better art – there isn’t space here for me to take on Milton Babbitt, even were I the right person to do so. For now, we can choose to evaluate this through a lens of ‘getting bums on seats’ rather than ‘creating great art’.

I like the idea of an experience tailored to a particular group who you’ve designated as ‘your audience’ for the purpose of a particular project or concert. There’s a little problem of scale if you choose the wrong niche, though, specifically whether there are enough 20-something poets to fill the space and make the event commercially viable.

Manzi’s description of an event created along these lines takes a solid premise: people aren’t always feeling what we’re feeling when we’re listening to music, so let’s create a programme where musicians explain what particular pieces mean to them:

Musicians of the orchestra…introduce pieces they have picked for the program, talking about how it has inspired and changed them as people. Audience members share their reactions to the music in real time–responding to questions in their interactive program books and participating in creative capacities like drawing sounds or creating origami. Everybody has options: participate, engage, ponder…or just enjoy the music.

Whether you read that with approval or horror probably says something deep and meaningful about your cultural background. Regardless, it’s an inventive solution to the problem, though you would have to have an audience willing to play along – and presumably listen to a fair amount more talking than a traditional concert.

Audience Experience

The ‘creating an experience’ mentality has had benefits in related fields. Secret Cinema (recently, and not un-controversially, awarded a grant from the very fund I was writing about a few weeks ago) has made the cinema-going experience into a thorough-going event that has proven very popular, and (until this year at least), lucrative.

I imagine it helps that cinema at its most mainstream has an incredibly wide base of appeal. I’m not sure everyone would be as enthusiastic as me about a Handel soiree experience in which the audience is greeted by bewigged attendants and interacts with actors playing, I don’t know, Hanoverian royalty, while swanning around an 18th-century ballroom.

Critics of Design Thinking warn that non-STEM disciplines are being forced into models that simply don’t apply to them. It’s safe to say Lee Vinsel isn’t a fan, here quoting an architectural professor:

“It’s design as marketing,” he said. “It’s about looking for and exploiting a market niche. It’s not really about a new and better world. It’s about exquisitely calibrating a product to a market niche that is underexploited.”

That said, in the current climate, classical music would probably settle for exploiting some market niches.

Give the people what they want?

A broader concern is – to risk another nebulous concept at this late stage – to do with authenticity. Artists are generally encouraged to communicate something personal through their art, rather than simply something that will appeal to the consumer. If we concentrate on chasing the audience experience and designing our offering around them, how much are we communicating of ourselves, and how much do we simply end up chasing trends?

‘Give the people what they want’ might work for mass media (and James Bond), but part of the problem in generating new audiences for declining art forms is that the people don’t always know what they want. We should absolutely be applauding any effort to present music in original and effective ways – and looking to the tech world for solutions is fine, if we remember that what works in one field doesn’t always transfer neatly over to another. There’s a balance to be struck between creating a more appealing product and making better art. Right now we’d probably settle for a little security, and if ‘design thinking’ is a tool to help us get there, maybe I can let go of a little cynicism.

Categories
Music

Why I don’t like listening to music (sometimes)

I sometimes beat myself up a little for not listening to as much music as I should. After all, it’s my livelihood, and my vocation – surely I should be spending a considerable portion of my time listening to it. And yet, I will often just…choose not to. I think at least part of the reason is due to a damaging cycle: I have convinced myself that I ought to listen to music in a certain way, a way which causes me not to enjoy it all that much, which in turn means I seek it out less often.

To test this hypothesis, I’m thinking about the situations in which I encounter music. Let’s take a typical scenario. I’m at home, and it occurs to me that I might enjoy listening to some music. I’ll open Spotify on my laptop, and search for anything that springs to mind, or try and find something new. What happens next is generally one of two things: a) I will sit down and try and concentrate on the music; or b) I will try and do something else, with the music in the background.

In situation a), I’m likely to get a bit fidgety, or feel like I ought to be doing something with my unoccupied hands, or with the bit of my brain which is disengaged. In b), there’s a danger I’ll get absorbed in the other activity, and tune out of the music entirely, forgetting to actually listen. It becomes like trying to read a book in bed before going to sleep; the mind wanders, and before long, the eyes have travelled down half the page of their own accord without taking anything in.

Both of these situations are a little unsatisfying, and because of this, I’m often more likely to put on a spoken-word podcast, and get on with another task. This works better, because I’m getting something done, and at the same time I’m generally able to process the audio content. It makes me feel productive, and like I’m learning something, so it feels like an efficient use of my time.

But I don’t necessarily want the experience of music to feel like this – after all, efficiency really isn’t the point.

Accordingly, I’m trying to think of the times when I really enjoy listening to music, to see if I can extrapolate something out of those experiences which will help me work out where I’m going wrong.


The weather had just turned. A greying summer had finally given in to autumn, a triumph the latter celebrated with lashings of rain and evening gloom. It was dark both inside and out, and as I sat working on the sofa, the rain was falling hard at the window, illuminated by the nearby yellow glow of the street-lamp.

These conditions on their own were auspicious enough: who doesn’t like the feeling of being warm inside, while behind a pane of glass the elements rage? But I realised I could enhance this experience, and I knew exactly how. I opened Spotify and cued up the most recent album by the band Bohren & der Club of Gore.

digression A brief digression may be necessary here, to cover the artistry of Bohren. The German musicians have become, over the course of several decades, perhaps the world’s leading exponents of a genre variously known as doom jazz, detective jazz, slow-core, or cinematic noir. The band’s members started off in various death-metal outfits, including the charmingly-named Chronical Diarrhoea, before finding their chosen mode of expression insufficiently depressing. This prompted a progression to what can best be described as very slow minor-key jazz, which they determined to be the proper means to express alienation and despair.

It’s fair to say they’ve mellowed a little over the years, with 2014’s Piano Nights permitting at least some major chords, and this year’s Patchouli Blue poking its nose slightly further out of the abyss. Its palette combines the standard Bohren ingredients – brushed snare, rasping saxophone, a leaden double bass hauling itself effortfully into the next bar – with something approaching sunlight, albeit synthetic, but bordering on hopeful. digression ends

As the rain formed a sort of white-noise background static, the murky soundworld of the music fused with it, and the whole experience, together with the darkness, caused a physical shiver of delight down my spine that must have lasted ten seconds.

This, I think, is what is now known as ASMR, although that sciencey-sounding name belies a sensation that is still not well understood. It’s the sort of thing you might experience stepping into a warm shower after coming in from a muddy walk, or from someone gently playing with your hair.

I continued listening, fairly actively though entranced, for about half an hour or so, until it was time to get dinner ready. It was certainly one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve had in recent weeks. But why?


The music had soundtracked, in an almost cinematic way, my surroundings: the weather, the dark, probably even my emotions – which, although I haven’t mentioned them yet, were doubtless another important contributing factor, coming at the end of day when I had been more than usually weighed-down by the frustrated ambitions of the year to date.

The key was that the music complemented everything else. I think one of the reasons I don’t always enjoy listening to music is that I expect it to stand on its own, in a vacuum, and for that to be sufficient to move me or even simply hold my interest. But music, as we all know, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it interacts with everything else that’s going on in the world, and the state of our minds.

I generally know enough to know that I have to be in the right mood to listen to a certain piece – but I tend to forget about everything else, the atmospheric conditions, the quality of the environment through which those sound-waves are going to end up vibrating.

As I write, I’ve tested this hypothesis a little. The environmental conditions are different: it’s the afternoon; it’s grey, but not dark, and my mood likewise. I’m playing the same album, but I’ve tried to recreate the circumstances a little by cuing up some artificial rain, via the website rainymood.com. The resulting attempt is less powerful, but it’s still raising a little shiver.

(Interestingly, I seem not to be the only one who has discovered this combination. Does it go back to some culturally-ingrained knowledge of film noir, or perhaps a half-remembered detective novel? Or is tapping into some kind of shared urban alienation? Note to self: more research needed.)


Perhaps, then, it’s not the music that I’ve been getting wrong, but everything else, the environmental factors. Bohren needs a rainy, urban cityscape, darkness, a glass of whisky, perhaps a revolver in the top drawer, so that you can listen to it while you stare warily out into the street under the sodden brim of your hat.

What about the rest – what do other genres need to engage me to the same extent? Maybe renaissance polyphony needs the gentle clink of a thurible, the smell of incense, that cool, airy feeling from being inside a massive stone building. Maybe desert rock like The Killers needs the sensation of being behind the wheel of a car, speeding anonymously through the moonlit Nevada sandscape. Maybe.

Could there be a set of circumstances specific to every piece of music in the world, that allows it to speak its truest? It’s like being on holiday and enjoying an aniseedy liquor, and bringing one back from the airport, and then finding on returning home that it doesn’t taste the same. It needed that chemical reaction with the humid air, and that state of holiday excitement and relaxation, to properly register.

All of which is a way of saying, perhaps I can let myself off the hook a little when I don’t enjoy music. Sometimes, the context is wrong. I’m not always good at remembering that, and I’m not always good at realising what those other factors are that will allow music to do what it does best. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The thing to practice is finding the right music for the right environment – or the other way around.

Categories
Creativity Technology

A new creative arms race?

Cultural commentators seem largely to fall into one of two camps at the moment. The first camp sees an opportunity to ‘build back better’. From the desolate rubble of 2020’s creative landscape, a new, fairer, more diverse, less stuffy artistic realm can be built, they say. We should frame our current situation as an opportunity, an environmental course correction with long-lasting benefits to be had, if we can just seize them.

The second camp is less optimistic, and rather more focussed on preserving the viability of creative institutions and the livelihoods of those who contribute to them. After all, what good is a fairer and more accessible world of the arts if there are no artists left to fashion it?

‘Normality is futility’

This week, the Guardian published an editorial outlining its view on the way forward for classical music. Their conclusion places them among the optimists:

It may mean reversing every assumption they know, it may mean that orchestras become communities of musicians who operate in small groups, as opposed to the massed ranks that they were employed to be – but the path of becoming radically local, community-centred organisations, who perform in places other than grand concert halls lies open. So does the acceleration of connecting with audiences digitally.

It makes it sound so easy – notwithstanding the fact that many organisations have been pouring their energy into these avenues since well before the pandemic. (The CBSO has arguably been doing this for decades.) Having decried Boris Johnson’s ’empty optimism and intelligence-insulting boosterism’ earlier in the article, the authors have then made some suggestions which are significantly easier to write about than they are to put into practice: be radically local, while at the same time connecting to a monied digital audience.

The way to connect with audiences digitally may remain ‘open’, but it’s not as if orchestras and ensembles haven’t been aggressively pursuing this direction for a while now. The current problem doesn’t seem to be that there isn’t enough digital content – it’s that by and large people won’t pay for it, and that other ways to monetise are hard to come by.

Arts entrepreneur David Taylor’s provocatively titled blog ‘Of course orchestras can make money online‘ offers a dissenting view – monetisation comes at the end of a sometimes-lengthy process of audience-generation via an organisation or brand providing ‘value’ to its audience, free of charge:

1 – Generate attention with content that provides value to an audience

2 – Use that attention and value to build strong connections and meaningful relationships

3 – Monetise those strong connections and meaningful relationships through multiple income streams and advocacy that also provide value.

This approach works well in many of the fields Taylor cites, including YouTubers and online lifestyle gurus. But for an orchestra, putting so much online for free in order to provide ‘value’ might prove an insurmountable loss-leader.

A creative arms-race

It’s a compelling vision of the future, especially if, like me, you avidly consume the value offered up for free by certain online lifestyle gurus. But one wonders: if there is a creative arms-race into this techno-utopian future, there will be a great number of organisations that simply can’t keep up.

Of course, seeing organisations doing something new, creative, different, and perhaps lucrative, will inspire others to have a go themselves. But the adjustment to a new funding model will leave many behind, whether because their brand simply isn’t suited to the fast-moving world of online media, or because they can’t afford the expertise of a social media brand manager on top of the salaries of a few dozen hungry musicians.

It’s notable that one of the most-watched classical music live-streams of recent weeks was that given by ORA Singers from the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, which has now racked up a very solid 15000 views on YouTube. Significantly, it was free to watch, though it must have cost a fair amount to lay on. It was also very good, especially considering the requirements of distancing forty singers in the space.

This is a brilliant way to offer value for free and help build up an audience, and ORA will undoubtedly have reached beyond their regular live concert audience. But I wonder how many other ensembles are able to pay a small army of freelancers to put on a loss-making event such as this, in the same of brand-building.

The outgoing president of the American Choral Directors’ Association, Tim Sharp, opened a recent letter to his community with a quote from the hymnodist Robert Lowry:

My life flows on in endless song; Above Earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet ‘tho far-off hymn, That hails A NEW CREATION;
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?

Sharp sees an opportunity to realise this ‘new creation’ by using the digital gains made during the pandemic to pursue wider teaching and engagement goals. I would love to be as optimistic as he is, and dearly hope he’s right, even though for me it remains something of a ‘far-off hymn’.

Ultimately, the conclusion I’m dancing around putting my name to is this: a transition to a more online economic basis for creative organisations is probable, at least in the short term, and not altogether undesirable. The speed of that transition is going to be the tricky thing. It will need to be cushioned by support for organisations attempting to make it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the people they employ that need support during this time, to avoid being driven out of the industry altogether.

Categories
Creativity

Consumption anxiety

Every now and then, I have a worrying thought, and it takes this form: is there a serious imbalance between the amount I’m creating, and the amount I’m consuming? To put it another way, I’m worrying about the ratio of things that I contribute to the world to things that I take from it. I don’t mean this in an environmental way – although I’m sure that’s true as well – but in a cultural sense.

It’s certainly a worry that’s been exacerbated by being unable to contribute to creative life in the way I normally would this year, what with global pandemia. But it’s not a new feeling, nor is it confined to this year. It’s an anxiety that appears to affect a large number of people. At a time when ‘content’ is available at our fingertips, more content than we could consume in a hundred lifetimes, many of us feel worried, even guilty, about consuming so much more than we produce.

It’s so easy to watch my friends making music online, or to binge a TV show, or waste time down in the depths of YouTube rabbit-holes. People have produced so much, and they share so much of it, and it’s just so very easy to gobble it all up. I’m attacked by the sense that I reap but I do not sow.

It’s not just me – this anxiety seems to be everywhere on the internet. Newer generations of internet users are well aware of just how much they consume; a quick google reveals that this has in turn provided the platform for dozens of articles about how to ‘release our creativity’ and counter the problem. It’s linked to an increased awareness of and contempt for the idea of consumerism. The revolt against this has led to movements such as ‘digital minimalism‘, which seems to be a reaction against the ease with which it is now possible to consume media of all kinds.

(The huge popularity of people peddling their own versions of this new ‘minimalism’ on YouTube is an interesting outgrowth of the idea. It can be easy to forget that they too are selling a lifestyle, albeit one with Apple-branded clean lines and the endless and subtly consumerist permutations of the quest for the ‘perfect productivity desk setup’.)

Where does this anxiety come from?

The disjunct between just how easily we can devour the fruits of culture, and how much we ourselves contribute to it, can seem vast. Most of us want to feel that we’re in control of our lives, and yet so many of us are reliant for our entertainment or consolation on the product of other people’s hard work and initiative – which makes us feel like maybe we aren’t in control after all.

I’ve been wondering if this is something which is particularly pertinent for those who practice music in the classical tradition. Most people would probably think of us broadly as ‘creatives’, but do we really create? I sometimes feel that at most we ‘curate’ – we take other people’s work (most often composers) and re-interpret their notes or rehearse their ideas. Thinking this way can leave me feeling like a net drain on the world’s creative output.

Is ‘creation vs consumption’ a false framing?

I wonder if it might be a bit simplistic to equate ‘creation’ with agency and ‘consumption’ with complacency. Certainly, for musicians, we can choose to frame interpretation and facilitation as a creative act in itself, one without which the composer’s notes and ideas cannot be realised.

A teacher once told me that to be a conductor is not to be an artist, or some kind of lofty spiritual being, but a craftsmen, working with their hands to fashion something, just as the musicians do. Seen this way, the performing musician is indeed a creative person. Performers are always creative when performing, as long as they are not doing so on auto-pilot or without intention.

Even beyond the realm of performance, the facilitation of a creative act is just as vital. Think of those who commission composers or arrange competitions, who stimulate or provide a conduit for the creativity of others. Teachers, artist managers, stage crew, tuners, luthiers, patrons. The whole ecosystem of the cultural world is so integrated that it doesn’t really make any sense to separate ‘creativity’ into something that some have or practice and others don’t.

Consumption is necessary for creativity

There’s a broader point to draw out here about how creativity works. Tiago Forte, in the Building a Second Brain Podcast, talks about the importance of the ‘gathering’ phase of creativity. This is when we intentionally gather material and allow ourselves to digest it. Only when we have consumed a lot of material and distilled it down to that which is most interesting or insightful do we then begin germinate ideas of our ‘own’.

Essentially, Forte is arguing that it’s not only OK to consume plenty of material, it’s a prerequisite to the creative act, a way of seeding the brain with the raw material which it can then play with or recombine in new ways.

Obviously, it’s going to make a bit of difference if we do this mindfully, being alert as we consume and positioning ourselves to be able to record things that resonate with us, in order to be able to recall and play with them. This idea is at the heart of Forte’s ‘Second Brain’ theory.


I’m enjoying processing this idea of how to think of creativity: as something not opposed to consumption, but the potential product of it. I’m hoping it will help me let myself off the hook – especially if I find that those tangible, recognisable fruits of creativity are thin on the ground in the wasteland of 2020.